Sunday 18 August 2019

Pól Ó Conghaile: Game of Thrones has changed the way we think about Northern Ireland

Game of Tourism: HBO's smash hit show has helped moved the conversation from Troubles to tourism

A Game of Thrones tour in Northern Ireland. Photo:
A Game of Thrones tour in Northern Ireland. Photo:
Toome Canal, a location for the Old Valyrian Canal in Game of Thrones. Photo:
Game of Thrones Tapestry exhibition at the Ulster Museum
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

A decade ago, talk of Winterfell or White Walkers in Northern Ireland would have earned you funny looks.

Today, it’s different.

Game of Thrones is the world’s biggest TV show, its characters are household names, and a screen tourism industry stretching from locations like the Dark Hedges at Ballymoney to activities like archery lessons at Castle Ward is worth at least £30m a year, Tourism NI says.

When Season One aired in 2011, nobody could have imagined GoT becoming such a pop cultural juggernaut.

Toome Canal, a location for the Old Valyrian Canal in Game of Thrones. Photo:
Toome Canal, a location for the Old Valyrian Canal in Game of Thrones. Photo:

In a way, it’s similar to how Northern Ireland felt after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. I remember visiting Belfast in the 1990s, when the city seemed to walk on eggshells and you didn’t go out without a plan. Over the years, I’ve returned over and again, watching the conversation slowly turn from Troubles to tourism. The Titanic Quarter rose, new hotels opened, Michelin stars were claimed. Food, culture and street art scenes have blossomed.

Nor is it just Northern Ireland’s capital. From the Causeway Coast to the Fermanagh Lakelands, Derry to Armagh, this is now a destination to visit, not a place to avoid.

In the past decade, Game of Thrones has been key to this journey. Up to 35pc of visitors are inspired by movies and TV shows, according to Tourism Ireland, and the show’s impact has been similar to that of Lord of the Rings on New Zealand (HBO and Linen Mill Studios will open an official Studio Tour in Banbridge next spring).

“It has put Northern Ireland on the global map,” says Judith Webb, who is responsible for screen tourism with Tourism NI. “It has given us a whole new narrative... fans are talking about Northern Ireland in a completely new way.”

This is key. Game of Thrones’ economic value is epic, but its lasting legacy goes beyond that. Mention Northern Ireland or the Troubles to millennials living outside the region nowadays, and they’re more likely to think of fictitious violence between Lannisters and Starks than real conflict between Nationalists and Unionists.

They’re as likely to flick through Westeros and Essos on a filming locations app as East and West Belfast on a map. ‘North’ and ‘Wall’ carry very different connotations in this mash-up of real and fantasy landscapes.

Of course, Game of Thrones is just a TV show. It hasn’t buried the past (nor solved Brexit or the squabbles of Stormont). But its Seven Kingdoms have helped change the way we think about the six counties. It has given us a whole new way to talk about the North.

In that sense, GoT has been a game-changer.

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